Tuesday, May 03, 2005 | The City Council chose Monday to allow voters to select San Diego’s 34th mayor beginning July 26 with a special primary election, and it did indeed take a rocket scientist to do so. And a retiree, and a small business owner and people of all professions from around San Diego.

After listening for more than two hours to a public overwhelmingly in support of an election to name a successor for the resigning Mayor Dick Murphy, the City Council voted unanimously to embrace the idea. In doing so, they eschewed the option of appointing the next mayor and set the foundation for what’s sure to be a rapid, relentless and historical election at a time of unprecedented civic crisis.

“The only real solution is to have a special election,” said Councilman Ralph Inzunza.

At the hearing, supporters of the special election repeatedly articulated their distrust of a city government wrapped up in financial and legal problems, as well as the need for the next mayor to have a majority mandate.

The perceived illegitimacy of his November victory dogged Murphy throughout the early months of his second term. He received 34 percent of the vote total in a three-way race and only after the Registrar of Voters discounted 5,000 write-in votes for Councilwoman Donna Frye in which voters failed to shade the oval after writing in her name.

“Do we want to appoint somebody who will be subject to the same thing,” asked Mission Hills resident Tim Holmberg.

The City Clerk’s Office will begin accepting applications for mayoral candidates May 13 and will cease doing so May 27. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the votes cast in the primary July 26, the city must hold a runoff election 49 days after or on September 13.

Many on the council supported the idea of consolidating the runoff election with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s anticipated special election on Nov. 8 in order to save costs. However, that election so far is purely speculative and must be called by June 13.

Further clouding the issue, City Attorney Mike Aguirre reversed an opinion released Friday and opined Monday that the city wouldn’t be able to consolidate its election with a statewide special election.

The municipal code allows for the city’s special election to be consolidated with a regularly scheduled statewide election if it occurs within 180 days of the calling of such a local election. However, Aguirre said such language was not in the city charter, which trumps the municipal code.

The council voted to revisit the issue June 14 when the fate of Schwarzenegger’s special election is known, and Aguirre promised an in-depth legal review for council members at that time. Each election is estimated to cost between $2 million and $3 million, though Assistant City Clerk Joyce Lane said she didn’t know how much the city could potentially save by consolidating the election.

Murphy announced last week that July 15 would be his last day, succumbing to the fiscal and legal pressures that built during his first term and came to a head with November’s election.

Whoever emerges from the electoral cluster could very well have an indelible impact on San Diego, a city awash in billion dollar pension deficits, federal and local investigations, and accusations of corruption.

And the overwhelming sentiment prevailing Monday in council chambers was that the public wanted to be the ones to choose the leader of San Diego in this unique time.

“I am everyman San Diego. I am a taxpayer. I am a registered voter. I am the reason you’re here,” said resident Joel Pointon in voicing his support for a special election. “… My trust has been exhausted. I normally sit in the back and observe, but it’s time to speak up.”

Council members understood the message.

“The public really has very little trust in us,” said Councilwoman Toni Atkins.

Monday’s public comment was littered with disillusioned references to the November election and several residents simply suggested that Frye be appointed mayor. They demanded that all votes be counted and a certain level of anger or frustration was detectable in the voices of more than just a few speakers.

The city’s problems are many. Its pension system has a $1.37 billion deficit, and the city is on the hook for an additional $500 million to $800 million in future unfunded retiree health benefits. The Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating errors and omissions made in the city’s disclosures to investors. The U.S. Attorney’s Office and District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis are investigating possible criminal corruption in connection with the board of the San Diego City Employees’ Retirement System.

Additionally, the city remains essentially locked out from public financial markets as its fiscal year 2003 and 2004 audits can’t be blessed by auditor KPMG until city consultants finish an investigation into possible wrongdoing.

The City Council is also preparing a voter-mandated transition to a form of government that shifts the city’s day-to-day operations from the purview of the city manager to the mayor. It started work Monday night on a budget that will likely require layoffs and service cuts to close a $50 million gap. Inzunza and fellow Councilman Michael Zucchet begin a federal criminal corruption trial Tuesday on charges that they accepted illegal campaign contributions in exchange for easing laws governing strip clubs.

Those that supported appointing a mayor until the 2006 election pointed to these myriad problems as the reason the city couldn’t deal with an election. Supporters included Atkins and Councilman Scott Peters, as well as some from the labor community.

But in the end, it was the people that don’t normally show up at City Hall that got their way.

“You can’t miss what’s going on in this town,” said Bill Ketchum, a Point Loma resident and rocket scientist, of the public’s mood.

Please contact Andrew Donohue directly at

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